Moments before the crash, Guillermo Gama texted his aunt, Jennifer Cantu, to let her know they were almost at the party and needed a couple of tables reserved for them. Gama, 23, reminded his aunt that everyone should be ready to celebrate.
“We’re more than ready, and we’ve got two tables for everyone,” Cantu replied. “Don’t worry and don’t take too long.”
But as the minutes passed and Gama didn’t show up with his girlfriend and her family, Cantu said she began to worry.
Party guests started whispering that there had been a crash nearby. Concern started to grow. The music was turned off.
“We thought that they were stuck in traffic because of the accident,” said Cantu, 36. “But when my nephew didn’t answer his phone anymore, we knew something had happened.”
A family member went outside and saw ambulances and police cars. The worries had turned into reality.
“We were planning to have a great night,” said Cantu. “Now all of this feels like a nightmare. It’s just devastating for all of us.”
On Saturday evening, a train collided with an SUV heading to a birthday party at a railroad crossing at Jim Lefler Circle and U.S. Highway 92 near Plant City. The crash resulted in the deaths of six people, including three children.
Gama, who was in the passenger seat, was critically injured. He was taken to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center.
Details of the crash and the circumstances are still being investigated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. The incident occurred just two blocks away from the party.
Even though the intersection has an incline and drivers can clearly see whether a train is coming or not, they still need to be careful. Authorities said the train blew a horn several times to alert the SUV to exit the railway. In 2021, an Amtrak train hit a truck and killed its driver at the same intersection.
The Federal Railroad Administration reports there are more than 80,000 crossings in the U.S. and has recommended the installation of uniform, easy-to-understand warning signs, though officials often have no jurisdiction over the private crossings. Over a 10-year period ending in 2017, there were 3,427 collisions at private crossings — about 14% of the national total during that span, according to the agency.
The victims were identified as Jose G. Hernandez, 52, who was driving the 2020 Cadillac Escalade at the time of the collision; his wife, Enedelia Hernandez, 50; their children: Julian Hernandez, 9; Alyssa Hernandez, 17; Anaelia Hernandez, 22; along with Jakub A. Lopez, 17, a family friend.
On Monday, family members were waiting outside Lakeland Regional, praying and waiting for news about Gama. He had severe injuries including a brain bleed, a ruptured kidney and a bruised lung, but the Sheriff’s Office said Monday he is expected to survive.
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“We are praying for him, but we know that it’s going to be a long road to recovery,” said Cantu.
A GoFundMe created by Cantu had raised nearly $12,000 of a $50,000 goal on Monday to cover the medical expenses of Gama, known as “Gordo.”
Cantu said before the crash, her nephew had been thinking of pursuing a career in nursing to support his family.
“His girlfriend was a nurse from what I heard. So I think that’s where he got that from. He was loved by so many people,” said Cantu.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister highlighted the support of the community in such difficult times.
“I can’t speak enough about the power of a community coming together to support and pray for the victims, families, and first responders involved in this heart-wrenching crash,” Chronister said. “We are hopeful about this young man’s recovery and remain committed to not only the investigation but the healing of all those impacted.”
Leticia Hernandez, 48, the driver’s niece, said she got a call from her mother around 9 p.m. Saturday night, asking if she’d heard anything about her uncle.
“I never thought she was gonna tell me that his entire family had been involved in an accident — that they hadn’t survived,” Hernandez told the Tampa Bay Times in a phone interview Monday.
In the days since, word of the loss had stretched through the Plant City community.
By Monday afternoon, a GoFundMe she created to pay for the funeral expenses of the five members of the Hernandez family had raised over $9,000. The goal is set at $150,000.
“We’re asking the community for help,” Leticia Hernandez said. “As you know, it’s a hardship as it is to plan for one funeral, let alone five.”
She recalled her last great memory with the Hernandez family. They had gathered together for a birthday party about a year ago. The family’s eldest daughter, Anaelia Hernandez, had just graduated from college in Georgia.
Alyssa Hernandez, who went by Lily, was talking about wanting to go to school to study medicine. All the while, the youngest of the family, Julian Hernandez, was running around the playground, bouncing around the jungle gym. He was having such a good time he didn’t want to leave, Leticia Hernandez said.
The children’s parents, Enedelia and Jose Hernandez, had been married for 30 years. They were kind and adored their children, she said.
“We’ve lost so much,” said Leticia Hernandez.
The Hillsborough County school district released a statement Monday, saying grief counselors were at two schools, Plant City High School, where Alyssa Hernandez and Jakub Lopez attended, and Knight Elementary School, where Julian Hernandez attended.
“These three students were a wonderful part of their school families, and they will be greatly missed.”
Friends and family took to Facebook to share their memories of Jakub Lopez and to mourn the loss of the brown-eyed, curly-haired teen.
“Such a kind and beautiful soul,” wrote Nina Lopez on her public Facebook account. “I’ll literally never ever forget your smile, laugh and everything else that makes you, YOU.”
Chick-fil-A Plant City, where Jakub Lopez worked, wrote on Facebook that he had the sweetest disposition and kindest soul.
“Our crew members adored working alongside Jakub as he told stories about fixing up his VW Beetle or sharing a frosted coffee with him,” said the post. “His sweetness was exemplary in teaching others on how to provide hospitality.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.